[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Maxwell analyzes several of Barthelme’s short stories and novels that explore the vulnerability of women in patriarchal society.]
Woman as Textual/Sexual Prisoner: The Short Stories
In one of Donald Barthelme’s most popular stories, “The Glass Mountain”, a young artist attempts to scale a glass mountain on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue in order to discover a “beautiful enchanted symbol” that sits in a room of a castle of pure gold at the summit. Equipped with only climbing irons on his feet and a plumber’s friend in each hand, the artist begins his ascent amidst the taunting jeers of the crowd and the dying moans of those fallen knights who have failed in their quest before him. At an altitude of 206 feet, he pauses to evaluate his motives, recall his fallen friends and observe the crowd stripping the dying knights of their “rings, wallets, pocket watches and ladies’ favors and their gold teeth.”1 Discouraged by the cruel behavior of the crowd and unsure of his chances of success, the young artist opts for a fairy tale solution to his plight by which he is lifted into the air by an eagle and carried to the summit of the mountain. There he discovers the “beautiful enchanted symbol with its layers of meaning” only to find that when he “touched it, it changed into only a beautiful princess” (CL [City Life] 65). In what would seem to be a moment of rage, the young artist “threw the beautiful princess headfirst down the mountain” to his acquaintances “who could be relied upon to deal with her” (CL 65).
This particular story has elicited many responses from those critics who see it as paradigmatic of both Barthelme’s minimalist techniques and his reflexive concerns with the modern writer’s quest to create an artistic form that will speak to a contemporary audience. Comprised of one hundred numbered fragments, the “Glass Mountain” exemplifies Barthelme’s use of collage whereby he juxtaposes incongruous elements (e.g. chivalric knights and a Manhattan street corner) to create a new reality through what Jerome Klinkowitz calls “the shock of contrast.”2 Larry McCaffery argues that this story reflects “the artist’s frustration at not being able to create a new form,”3 while Alan Wilde maintains that Barthelme is attempting to “demythify or disenchant” all enchanted symbols of American culture from “Batman to the American Dream” so that we come to apprehend the world, as does the crowd, as “pure, disenchanted, phenomenal reality.”4 Rather than seeing the story as an attempt to “deflate the authority of symbols in contemporary narrative,” Wayne Stengel argues that “The Glass Mountain” points to the modern artist’s quest to create symbols that “mediate between its former lofty perspectives” (e.g. a glass mountain) and a harsh modern world,” to create an artistic vision that transforms “the sidewalks full of dogshit to the rainbow of color of the artist’s palette.”5
While “The Glass Mountain”, like...